In Between Realities, the new solo exhibition of French-Japanese duo Aki+Arnaud Cooren held at Carpenters Workshop Gallery, nothing is as it seems; not the materials, not the surfaces, and not the narratives. Through their extraordinary ability to render materials and invent processes, the two create the surrealist perception that stands at the core of the exhibition experience. What looks like fabric is metal, what looks like crocodile skin is sleek leather, what looks soft is hard, and what looks fragile is solid. This is not accidental—the Paris-based husband and wife sought to create a tension between reality and illusion, between the expected and the unexpected, and to constantly surprise. The Gallery, located on the top floor of a landmark Fifth Avenue building, is a bare space which overlooks the Manhattan skyline, a fantastic backdrop to the furniture on display.
I spent a beautiful New York morning with Aki and Arnaud just before the opening of their exhibition. I had the privilege to learn about the story of their lives: their visions, imagination, and the scientific and artistic investigations that were required to bring this show to life after four years in the making. Certainly, this is a special moment for the artists and for the Gallery. Aki was born in Paris as the daughter of two Japanese jewelry artists and grew up in Tokyo where she developed her strong Japanese identity. Eventually she discovered the work of Sori Yanagi, which was a defining moment in her career. Yanagi was a famed Japanese industrial designer who took a lead role in the design movement of postwar Japan, merging traditional crafts with modernist values and known for his famed Butterfly Stool, and he has been an important influence on how she developed as a designer. She returned to Paris age 18 to study interior and product design at the Ecole Camondo, where she met Arnaud: a native of northern France who studied contemporary art in Belgium before moving to Paris. Since opening A+A Cooren in 1999, the two have worked with some of France’s finest brands—creating award winning objects and interiors.
The fundamental material and materiality of their oeuvre is textile; in their view, it is the formative substance in the development of humanity. They fold, glue, imprint, weave, curve, dye, harden, and constantly research its potential. Every piece included in the show is a result of a long period of experimentation and research, crafted between their own studio and the gallery’s production atelier near Charles de Gaulle airport. Beneath the exquisite aesthetic—a personal minimalism which is a balanced combination of French and Japanese sensibilities—there is a strong sense of storytelling. As contemporary designers, Aki and Arnaud are committed to allowing the user/viewer to experience their objects in multiple layers. As you walk through the show you learn about the experiences of the artists in between realities, told through objects like chairs, lamps, benches, tables, and stools. The fact that functionality is their priority is nearly concealed by the power of the forms and the notions of imperfection.
I was enraptured with the Ishigaki light sculptures, which capture a moment of magical light that Arnaud experienced when he went freediving off the coast of Ishigaki Island, South of Japan. It is crafted of a metal and epoxy-carbon based supports, a bamboo stem, and a fixed linen lampshade dyed in indigo blue. The light is projected upwards from a bulb in the base through the textile lampshade, producing a shadow on the ceiling to represent the circle of sunlight on the ocean’s surface as viewed from underwater. This exhibit will be on view until April 28th.
Images courtesty Carpenters Workshop Gallery; installation images: Matt Harrington.